The recording is done, it’s time for mixing, you’ve read about compression but where to start? If you really want to learn about the theory you can read this article, but you may just want to get on with it.

So, how to compress female vocals? When compressing female vocals, you’ll want to focus on the higher frequencies, add a low-cut filter, and utilize a multiband compressor for spot fixes.

Different genres of music, the tone that you want to achieve with your vocal track, and ranges/notes hit during the recording require different compressors. So, let’s go over the six most common compressions used in mixers to help narrow down the best choice for your compressing needs and how to compress female vocals.

 

The Quick Start Guide to Compressing Female Vocals

 

No matter what compression you choose or whether or not you layer multiple compressors on one track, each one should be approached with the same basic method

  1. Load the female vocal recording into a new audio track.
    • It’s best to label this one as “Main Female Vocal Track.”
  2. Lower the threshold and raise the ratio to an extreme setting
    • This will make the compression very obvious
    • Do not solo the track at any time. You want to hear the compressor in relation to the rest of the instruments and other backup vocals.
  3. Start at a midrange Attack time.
    • When starting off, begin in the midrange of around 15ms. This will have to be adjusted depending on the genre of music you’re working within and desired vocal aggression.
  4. Start at a midrange Release time.
    • Probably around 40ms. You will want to get the compressor in time with the music.
  5. Lower the ratio and raise the threshold.
    • The ratio between the attack and release time will need to be lowered. Usually around a 1.5:1 will do the trick. The threshold is the level in which the compressor actually kicks in. If the audio is louder than the threshold, the compressor activates. The lower the threshold, the more compression you’ll get.
  6. For the threshold, you’ll want to raise it back up to around -24dB.Adjust the Gain Reduction.
  7. Address the Knee
    • If the vocal sounds unnatural, the knee is too harsh. Add in a softer knee in order to soften the transition between compression and raw file.
    • If the vocals are too sporadic, the knee is too soft. Dial up the knee to a higher level in order to compress the vocals more tightly.
    • Note: not all audio processing software have knees that can be adjusted. There is some software with knee presets.
  8. Makeup lost Gain.
    • Throughout the process, a lot of gain could have been lost. Adjust for this by manually raising the overall gain of the vocal track. Do not solo the vocal track.
    • Only adjust by increments of +/-3dB.

 

 

6 Different Compressions To Use With Female Vocals

 

There are countless options when it comes to compressors. Most DAWs come jam-packed with in house options, and the internet is full of plug-ins and downloadable add-ons. No matter what software you may use to edit, there are six common types of compressions you should know about (and use).

 

1) Tonal Compression

 

Tonal compression does exactly what’s in the name: shape the tone of the vocals. It’s a good base compression to start with as it will tether the dynamics to a more neutral area. Another benefit of starting with tonal compression is the ability to ad`d or remove aggression from the vocals.

To utilize a tonal compression, it’s best to focus on the attack time. Start the track with a medium attack time of around 15ms, and adjust it to your taste/genre. The general rule of thumb is a faster attack time (usually around 5ms) will make the vocals sound thick and heavy; a slower attack time (usually around 30ms) will make your vocals sound punchy and aggressive.

So, if you’re going for a female vocal that will stand out more, you’ll want to use a faster attack time

An example of the perimeters for a lighter tonal compression of female vocals would be:

    1. Ratio: 1.5:1
    2. Attack Time: 15ms (but up to 30ms for more punch)
    3. Release Time: 40ms
    4. Threshold: -24dB
    5. Gain Reduction: 2-3dB
    6. Knee: Soft
    7. Makeup Gain: 2dB

 

2) Dynamic Compression

 

A dynamic compressor is used to catch the loudest peaks and add more consistency between the different dynamics throughout the track. This will help stabilize the loudness of the track and prevent listening exhaustion from your audience. Although equalizing your peaks will help make your recording sound more professional and consistent, this compression isn’t recommended for lighter genres such as: jazz, pop, ballad, etc.

  1. To best utilize this compressor, a faster attack time and higher ratio are needed. The ratio should be at about 10:1 and the knee set to “hard.” These settings are most likely going to change by the end of the track, but the values should start here in order to best hear the change happening to the vocals.
  2. Next, adjust the threshold until the compressor is only engaging on the louder peaks, not every word. You want the compressor to focus on the higher peaks to stabilize them to the quieter/lower peaks.
  3. Set the attack time to match the tone you’re going for. Remember, a faster attack time will add weight to the vocal, while a slower attack time will add more aggression. For the dynamic compressor, you want the attack time to be within the 3-10ms range. Anything below 2ms risks pushing the vocals further back into the mix.
  4. For the release time, start at 20ms and adjust it until the compressor starts to breathe in time with the music. If you want more aggression for the vocals, go back and adjust the attack time to a faster speed, but leave the release time at the ideal speed.
  5. Round everything off by lowering the ratio to about a 2:1, or until the compressor is applying 2 to 3dB of gain reduction. For heavier genres such as metal, hip-hop, etc, you’ll want the gain reduction to be anywhere between 6 and 10dB.

 

An example of the perimeters for a dynamic compression of female vocals would be:

    1. Ratio: 2:1
    2. Attack Time: 5ms (medium-fast)
    3. Release Time: 20ms (medium)
    4. Threshold: -24dB
    5. Gain Reduction: 2-3dB
    1. Knee: Hard
    2. Makeup Gain: 1dB

 

3) Side Chain Compression

 

Side chain compression is the only compressor that will not directly impact vocals. Instead, you should take advantage of this compressor’s ability to make certain instruments dependent on others.

The way it works is by having the effect level on one instrument be controlled by the volume level of another instrument. So, it can be applied to any midrange instrument (piano, guitar, etc.) that will automatically lower/raise the level of that instrument based on the volume of the vocals

For most built-in systems, there are no specific ratios or methods to deciding which is the best setup for side chain compression. Mainly, choose the input you’d like to “chain” to the other.

It is recommended that you download a third party plug-in that has factory set perimeters already in place, but this isn’t necessary. Especially if this isn’t a compressor you’re going to use a lot.

 

4) Multiband Compression

 

Multiband compression splits the track into different frequency ranges and allows you to compress them independently. Each of these different frequencies is called a “band.”

Using this process opens the possibilities to apply compressors to only a certain part of a track’s frequency spectrum. For example, if a high-range band is repeatedly peaking throughout the entire vocal track, you can use a multiband compressor to cut the high-ends in one motion.

This saves you time from having to go section by section and editing the vocals in chunks. Plus, if there is a specific frequency that needs attention, it is automatically adjusted for by the mixer.

Let it be noted that using a multiband compression will require repeated listening throughout the entire track. What may work in one problem section may lead to another issue later in the same track.

 

5) Parallel Compression

 

Parallel compression is used to make sure the lead vocals sit at the very front of the mix at all times. This is incredibly important as you obviously want all the lyrics and notes to be heard, but also necessary with the addition of other vocals.

To start, create a new aux called ‘Vocal Compression’. Load up a parallel compressor and send your lead vocal to this new aux. Change it’s output to the ‘Lead Vocals’ aux.

Aiming for a minimum of  6dB of gain reduction, you want the parallel compression to be heavy. Emphasize this by having an attack time of 5ms and a release time of 30ms. Adjust these times depending on the main vocal track.

Although you want to draw attention to the lead vocal, you don’t want to increase its actual volume.

Depending on the style of music, the parallel compressor can be pushed further. It works by adding slight gain to all the quietest bits of the vocal track. Thus, your vocals can’t drop under a certain volume.

 

6) Serial Compression

 

Serial compression is simply the process of using multiple compressors throughout the mixing process. This is the best method of not only achieving subtle, natural sounding compression to your vocals, but it will also boost the quality of the recording to sound more like a professional studio.

Although it’s the best method for editing female vocals, it is unwise to apply multiple compressors to the entire track. Rather, you should go section by section in order to hear what each part of the vocal’s needs.

Throughout the entire mixing process, never apply more than 3dB of gain reduction. Regardless of genre, adding more than that can cause a decrease in the vocal quality, causing it to sound unnatural and robotic. Additionally, too much gain reduction could send the main vocals backwards in the mix.

 

The Difference Between Male and Female Vocals

 

There’s a reason most men are baritones and basses, and most women are altos and sopranos. Our vocal cords stretch, vibrate, and pass air at different speeds and in completely different shapes- causing separate mixing issues for female and male vocals.

For the most part, the pitch range for men’s voices is anywhere between 60–180 Hz, while the average pitch range of women’s voices is between 160–300 Hz.

This means female vocals will live in higher frequencies than their male counterparts.

 

Common Issues Compressing with Female Vocals

 

When it comes to mixing, this difference between vocal cords is huge. Depending on where the pitches land and overall timbre of the voice, problem areas can literally be on two separate sides of the frequency meter. For mixing with female vocals, it can generally lead to three main issues: low range mud, boxy sounds, and harsh high frequencies.

 

Low and Mid Range Mud

 

Because female vocals tend to hang out in higher frequencies, their lower and even mid-range levels can become muddy. This can lead to the female vocal track sounding weak or frail. To combat this, add a low-cut filter to the female vocals.

You’ll want to aim for around 250-300Hz range, never going below the 200Hz line. Adjust the low and mid range knob to boost these frequencies by around 4.5-6dB. This should add more body to your female vocals.

 

“Boxy” Sounds

 

First and foremost, this issue could come from the microphone itself. So, troubleshoot the recording equipment before attempting to add any filters or compressors to the female vocal track.

If the equipment isn’t the issue, fear not as this “boxy” sound is common amongst male and female vocals (though more common for female vocals). This issue tends to linger around the 1k-500Hz range. To combat this, add a limiter cut to the 600 Hz frequency line.

To go even further with this solution, cut any interferences with the female vocal track by 3dB increments. This may require a parallel compressor as well as serial compression, but it will allow the best frequencies to shine above the rest.

Afterwards, you should boost the high-ends because often the end of the phrases will have been cut off due to the limiter.

 

Harsh High Frequencies

 

If your female vocals sound “shreaky” or are peaking far too often, the vocals are too harsh. To combat this, add a multiband compressor with 4.5dB compression on 4000dB.

This should help alleviate a lot of the common spots with harshness. However, you will need to go back and listen to the entire track and adjust accordingly. This is due to the multiband compression only working on one specific frequency at a time.

 

Should You Be Using a Compressor for Female Vocals?

 

More than likely, yes, you should be using a compressor for female vocals. There are a lot of reasons why you would use a compressor in general, but it becomes especially important when mixing female vocals.

The female voice tends to sit in the higher range and tends to lack in body. This can make the vocals sound less rich and lower the overall tone.

That being said, there is a time in which you would not want to use compression. If you are looking for consistency in your female vocals rather than differentiating parts, you’ll want to use automation rather than compression.

 

The Compression Needs of Female Vocals in Different Genres

 

As mentioned before, each genre and tone will have its own needs from the female vocal track. Although these are guidelines for what is expected from each genre, they are simply that: guidelines. Every song and track will need its own adjustment depending on the desired effect.

 

Pop

 

Generally speaking, pop music is very vocal heavy. Throughout history, the genre has favored those with a female lead voice as its softer, high pitches don’t cause listening fatigue for the audience. For the most part, you’ll want to focus in on the following:

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Needs multiple compression
    3. Faster attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Heavier dynamics
    6. Softer knee

One main issue you may run into is getting the balance between the female lead vocals and every other track in the song. To help combat this, utilize a parallel compression.

 

Rock

 

Although this genre is very broad with subgenres ranging from soft rock to folk rock to even rocky rock, the general formula when it comes to female vocals is the same. Since the rock genre tends to have more acoustic guitars and less kick-bass drums, it can be compressed in the same fashion as the acoustic genre.

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Only needs one compression
    3. Faster attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Heavier dynamics
    6. Softer knee

One issue you may run into when mixing for female vocals under the rock genre is the uniqueness needed per song. One compressor might work perfectly for one section of the song, but that same compressor might lower the gain on the vocal track too much at another part of the same song. To combat this, a combination of multiband compression and low-cut filters may be needed.

 

Jazz

 

Due to its softer tones and emphasis on scat performance, jazz might be the most important genre to focus all attention on lead vocals, especially if the lead vocals are female. Though it will usually only need one compression, the key here is to match the timbre of the bass without sounding like a lot of electronic mixing was used. In fact, the fewer filters and compression you can do to the vocal track, the better.

    1. Soft processing
    2. Only needs one compression
    3. Slower attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Softer dynamics
    6. Softer knee

One issue you may run across in the jazz mixing process is having the softer dynamics be overpowered by the drums. A simple solution to this problem is to utilize the parallel compressor. Match the input of the drum to the lowest level of the vocal track to equalize it.

 

Hip-hop

 

Hip-hop, and subsequently rap, focus entirely on the vocal track. The advantage of mixing female vocals in this genre is that the instrumental tracks are usually all electronic as well. This gives more control over the overall mix and can help bring the female vocals to the front. Generally speaking, you’ll want to follow these guidelines:

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Needs multiple compression
    3. Faster attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Heavier dynamics
    6. Softer knee

One issue you may encounter while adding compressions is the muddy sound mentioned before. This is due to female vocals usually having a natural tendency to reach higher frequencies; thus, it decreases the body of the spoken words. If this occurs, simply create a multiband compressor with a low-cut filter around 250Hz.

 

RnB

 

“Rhythm and Beat” mainly focuses on just that: rhythm and beat. Because of this, the female vocal track needs to mix more into the instruments rather than stand out ahead. To obtain that level of mixing, compress the female vocals accordingly:

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Needs multiple compression
    3. Slower attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Heavier dynamics
    6. Softer knee

A common mistake done when compressing the female vocals under this genre is forgetting to also adjust for any and all background vocals. Each track will need to be compressed and edited independently from one another, then mixed together simultaneously with the instrumental tracks. To keep the main female track from being lost in the mix, use the parallel compressor, and treat all instrumental tracks as one large track.

 

Electronic

 

Oddly enough, the electronic genre is the most complex to mix female vocals into. Like the hip-hop genre, most of the instrumental tracks are created, unsurprisingly, electronically. However, this genre tends to focus mainly on bass and lower frequencies getting the spotlight. Because of this, the female vocals may need the following:

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Needs multiple compression
    3. Faster attack time
    4. Faster release time
    5. Softer dynamics
    6. Harder knee

For electronic music, the focus should not be on the female vocals. Rather, they should be mixed like another instrumental track. To keep everything sounding equal, a multiband compressor and equalizer will do the trick perfectly as the goal is to keep the level equal across all the tracks.

 

Metal

 

Metal is a very large genre housing thousands of subgenres, each with their own unique sounds, tones, and needs from vocal tracks. Generally speaking, the female vocal track will need the following:

    1. Heavy processing
    2. Needs multiple compression
    3. Faster attack time
    4. Faster release time
    5. Heavier dynamics
    6. Harder knee

The main issue when compressing female vocals for the metal genre is the lack of naturally occurring lower frequencies in feminine sounds. For a genre that is infamous for aggressive vocals, this where an attack time of closer, if not over, 30ms would be appropriate. The threshold can, and should, be pushed the furthest here; a multiband compressor with a 4.5dB compression would be ideal.

To make up for the lack of bass in female vocals, a parallel compressor and serial compression should also be used in order to match the main vocal track with the instrumental track with the highest level. Typically, this will be the lead electric guitar.

 

Acoustic

 

Unlike its metal counterpart, the acoustic genre is very forgiving towards female vocals. With softer guitars and typically only having two tracks (vocals included), there is less compression needed for the singer(s).

    1. Light processing
    2. Only one compression needed
    3. Slower attack time
    4. Slower release time
    5. Softer dynamics
    6. Softer knee

 

A key element to watch for when recording in this genre is the “boxy” sound mentioned before. There tends to be a desire to record both guitar, piano, and other instruments at the same time as the vocals with the same microphone. This should be avoided to create the cleanest vocal track possible. If the boxy sound issue continues, cut anything that is interfering with the female vocals, then boost the high-ends.

When it comes to compressing female vocals, for the most part, they can be compressed and mixed the same way as male vocals. The main difference between the two is the emphasis on cutting the higher frequencies while boosting the low to midrange in order to create more body to the female vocals.

Rob Wreglesworth

Although Rob has come to accept he will probably never be a world famous musician, he still loves making music at home. He started this blog to share the knowledge he has gained from doing this for over 10 years so that you can create music at home too.
Rob Wreglesworth
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